05/20/2010 11:00PM

Enjoy seaside riches while they last


The weekend after the Preakness, the focus of American racing usually turns to the premier track on the eastern seaboard. For decades that has been Belmont Park, which offered by far the best and richest racing in the region for two and a half months until Saratoga opened and offered even better and richer racing.

This year, that landscape has been completely upended. On Saturday, Monmouth Park opened a drastically enriched meeting with a 13-race card offering $812,000 in purses, higher than the loftiest daily averages at Saratoga, Keeneland, Del Mar, or anywhere else in American racing. And it's a soft opening: Average daily purses at Monmouth's 50-day spring-summer meeting will be even higher, at roughly $1 million a day, nearly double that at the most popular and prestigious tracks in the country.

Meanwhile, Belmont was putting on a 10-race card Saturday totaling $426,000, more than a third of that coming in the $150,000 Sheepshead Bay. Five of the day's other nine races offered purses of only $19,000 to $25,000. This was a day after the track sent notices to its 1,400 employees that the track will cease operations June 9 unless New York state makes good on its contractual obligation to provide the track with a loan to compensate for the state's failure to get a racino up and running at Aqueduct.

The question is whether this topsy-turvy situation is a new world order or a one-time blip. As much as things may look dire for Belmont and rosy for Monmouth right now, it's entirely possible those roles will be reversed again a year or two from now.

Everyone expects New York to come up with its promised $17 million for Belmont before June 9 -- the notices sent out are a legal requirement and a standard part of the political theater of threatened shutdowns in New York racing politics. As the issue gains even more public attention in the spotlight of the Belmont Stakes on June 5, a solution will be found. The holdup so far has been on the technical mechanisms for the loan rather than anyone's arguing that Belmont should be starved into extinction.

Eventually an Aqueduct racino operator will be chosen -- even though "eventually" has taken eight and a half years so far since voters approved racinos in November 2001. The state can not wait much longer though, since it is facing a $9.2 billion budget deficit and is losing at least $1 million a day in revenue without the Aqueduct racino. Once that happens it will take at least a year to get the slots spinning, but once they do, even conservative estimates are that New York's race purses will increase by at least 30 percent.

The Monmouth experiment -- replacing five days a week of ho-hum racing of declining quality with three days a week of big fields running for outlandishly rich purses -- is being widely hailed as a visionary plan and a blueprint for the industry. It will certainly be a more appealing product for horsemen and horseplayers, and average daily handle will post impressive gains. As a general concept, American racing does needs to move in the direction of fewer race dates with bigger fields.

Even so, the math simply doesn't work for Monmouth's million-a-day purses to be a renewable or sustainable program beyond this year. Track officials are predicting a 25-percent handle increase, but in fact handle would have to more than triple to support the gaudy purse structure on an ongoing basis.

This is the final year of a deal in New Jersey where the Atlantic City casinos are subsidizing purses in exchange for the tracks' not seeking slot machines. Even that deal doesn't support this year's purses, which are being further subsidized by the state as a one-year experiment, and Gov. Chris Christie has said his goal is to make the racing industry "entirely self-sustaining." Unless handle increases from last year's $3.1 million a day to $10 million, that isn't going to happen.

The bottom line is that Monmouth is likely to show enormous gains this year, but nowhere near enough to justify a renewal of this year's spending spree -- purses such as those on the opening-day card of $30,000 for $5,000 claimers, and $80,000 for entry-level New Jersey-bred allowance runners. The 50-day meeting will include 125 similarly lucrative races restricted to horses bred in New Jersey, a state which has only 22 registered stallions and about 300 broodmares. It's a wonderful giveaway for those who breed and own those horses, but difficult to rationalize going forward if the business it attracts only pays for half of it.

In the meantime, it's going to be a grim stretch for New York and one spectacular beach party on the Jersey shore -- even if it only lasts for one summer.